Theres a flying saucer in my backyard

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On 8 July 1947, the Roswell Daily Record broke the news of a cosmic encounter in New Mexico. The story, headlined 'raaf captures flying saucer on ranch in roswell region', was based on a press release issued by Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF). When sheep rancher Mac Brazel was making rounds at a ranch 137 kilometres west of Roswell, he found some wreckage consisting largely of rubber strips, wood sticks, tinfoil, plastic, tape with some strange markings that resembled 'hieroglyphics', and very tough paper. Brazel was struck by the unusual nature of the debris. After a few days he drove into Roswell, where he reported the incident to the Sheriff, who reported it to Major Jesse Marcel, Intelligence Officer at RAAF.

The Army closed off the debris site while the wreckage was being cleared. The officers thought that they had found a flying saucer. They shipped the debris to Air Force General Roger Ramey for examination. But in the meantime Colonel William Blanchard, the Commander at Roswell, issued a press release stating that the wreckage of a flying saucer had been recovered. The news caused a sensation around the world, but it was shortlived. Within hours General Ramey called in the local press and announced that RAAF had mistakenly identified remains of a weather balloon as the wreckage of a flying saucer. The next day, the Roswell Daily Record's banner headline proclaimed: gen. ramey empties roswell saucer.

Another story that was not published in the paper, but that some town folks knew about, came from witnesses who had seen the wreckage. They claimed that they had seen alien 'bodies' nearby, describing them as a little more than a metre tall, with bluish skin coloration and no ears, hair, eyebrows or eyelashes. The Air Force explained these 'aliens' as dummies dropped from high-altitude balloons to study the results of the impact. And that was the end of the excitement.

No one ever talked about this episode, at least until the publication in 1980 of a book, The Roswell Incident, which came to the dramatic conclusion that there had been a cover-up of cosmic proportions. In 1988 another book, UFO Crash at Roswell, claimed that the US government had found and removed the remnants of the UFO crew - several little alien bodies. These two books were the genesis of a UFO myth and a conspiracy theory - that the government had conspired to cover up the fact that an alien ship had landed at Roswell. The truth is far less exotic: what actually happened was that people who saw the dummies mistook them for aliens.

The term 'UFOs' (unidentified flying objects) was suggested in the mid-1950s by the US Air Force. The term 'flying saucer' was not considered accurate, since many sightings had very natural explanations, while others did not. UFO fans tend to forget that the 'U' in UFO simply stands for 'unidentified', and does not suggest 'extra-terrestrial'.

The question of the existence of extra-terrestrial life (even the simplest form, such as microscopic organisms) and extra-terrestrial intelligent life (advanced technical civilisations capable of communicating with us) is not related to UFOs. Since the dawn of history, humans have been pondering the question: are we alone?

If we are not alone, then how many intelligent civilisations might exist among the stars? In 1961 the American radio astronomer Frank Drake came up with an ingenious approach - now known as the Drake Equation - to answer this question. At that time he was working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia. In the early 1960s many scientists ridiculed the idea of extra-terrestrial intelligent life, but to Drake the idea of other intelligent civilisations beyond Earth was a distinct possibility. He even placed a sign on his office door: 'Is there intelligent life on Earth?' He was serious about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life, and those who questioned his belief in it were not, in his view, 'intelligent life' on Earth.

In its simplest form, the Drake Equation works as follows. To find out the number (N) of advanced technical civilisations in the Milky Way, we need to know:

■ How many stars are born each year in our galaxy (R)

■ How many of these stars have planets (p)

■ How many of these planets are suitable for life (e)

■ On how many planets life actually appears (l)

■ On how many planets life evolves to an intelligent form (i)

■ On how many planets the intelligent life can communicate to other worlds (c)

■ The average life of these advanced civilisations (L)

If we multiply these seven factors, we get the equation:

If we know the values of these factors, we can calculate N. As astronomers do not agree on the exact values, estimates of N vary from one (we are home alone) to many millions (yes, a flying saucer could land in your backyard). These estimates are for our galaxy alone, and there are 125 billion (and still counting) galaxies in the presently observable universe. Mind boggling, indeed!

If there are millions of ET civilisations in the universe, then it is possible that some of them might have visited Earth in the past. Drake, who is still involved in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute, says: 'As strongly as I believe that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, I maintain that UFOs are not extraterrestrial visitors. They are the products of intelligent life on this planet.'

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